Visiting with elders

Visiting with Elders: Strategies to help you have a meaningful and rich visit with an elderly loved one, is a small book I authored that has touched a responsive nerve in the community. The overwhelming public response to a Toronto Star article in December, 2009, on the book, reflects the reality that so many people are grappling with issues related to caring for elders in their extended family and friendship network. This book offers hope for all those who are struggling to understand the impact of changes in a cognitive capacity on the older people they love and care about. It suggests a way of understanding the older person as someone who maintains a sense of identity that continues to evolve and that needs affirmation from all the people in their day-to-day lives. These relationships are important.

The book’s message is also a counterpoint – and a very much needed balance – to the sometimes fear-generating tendencies of alarmist media pronouncements of the looming epidemic of dementia. Such language perpetuates the fear and stigmatization of people with dementia, and tends to further distance them from us. What is needed is a fuller and more humanistic appreciation and understanding of the profound ways in which our social and cultural framework and societal values impact on how we view and relate to those who develop changes in cognition. By continuing to see elders with memory loss as members of the community, and creating living environments that support their remaining strengths, we champion the self that remains intact despite memory losses. Instead of “medicalizing” and “pathologizing” and concentrating on disease, we focus on the person, and what might be possible if the social, physical and psychological space were designed to support quality of life.

My own journey in seeing the need for writing this book, began as I got to know the older residents living in the nursing home, many of whom were experiencing significant cognitive deficits. They were my teachers.  I witnessed their amazing capacities to respond to social stimuli, to tell stories, to engage socially with others in their social world. I figured out what they understood by trying different ways of connecting to them. Throughout the life course, all of us are engaged in continual meaning-making, creating an intrinsic purpose in life, a moral template if you will, that anchors us. It is through this lens that we can best understand the emotional repertoire of older people struggling with the changes in cognition that make coping with daily life problematic. If we see them as adults trying to problem-solve with insufficient information, we can compensate by intervening in a way that, knowing them, might provide comfort, pleasure or assistance.

My impetus was to share these insights and approaches with multi-disciplinary staff, caregivers and family members. How we define or understand an issue or a condition creates the perspective that frames the interventions and actions that seem possible. So, knowing your relative, and the kind of social space they feel comfortable in, and your own creativity and self-awareness, creates possibilities for engagement that confirms their essential humanity and helps them truly feel at home, safe and cared for. This embodies quality of life in a meaningful way for all.

This book offers hope and possibilities in being with a loved one who is experiencing cognitive changes. It engages the reader in suggesting new ways of understanding and communicating, and suggests creative use of our natural world, music, art, and the sounds around us. I hope you will find the book helpful in your journey.

To read Visiting with Elders online or to purchase a hard copy of the booklet, go to: